dog overprotects child

Morgan: Alright Mike, welcome back to the show. I’ve got a great question for you today. Here we go: “I’ve noticed my dog is very protective of my child. Is this something that I should be concerned about?”

A Worst-Case Scenario

Mike: The short answer is: absolutely, yes. You should be worried about it – and I’ll tell you a quick story, and then go into it a little bit.

Many years ago, around the time that I wrote my first iteration of Good Dog, Happy Baby – it was called There’s A Baby In The House back then (which was probably about 19 or 20 years ago) – I had a case where a woman had had a baby, and they had a Doberman.

The Doberman seemed nice, and the babysitter came over the first time. Everything was great: she came in, the dog said hello, they went into the little nursery area.

The mom put the baby into its bassinet, and she said “I’ll be right back, I’m going to go to the kitchen. I’m going to grab this or that, and I’ll be right back.”

She left the babysitter in the room with the dog. And the second she left the room, the dog went after the babysitter – viciously bit her in the breast, of all places.

She was hospitalized, reconstructive surgery, it was nasty. The people sued, and it was a big, ugly mess. They ended up having to put the dog down. It was traumatic, obviously, all the way around.

So yes, if your dog is inappropriately protective of your child, it’s a cause for major concern, and you need to deal with it ASAP.

And it’s a little bit of a tricky thing to have to deal with, because basically if the dog is taking the “leadership” role, part of the leader’s job is protecting, right?

So the first thing that I would probably implement is a very solid rank management program. It’s basically what’s in my book, it’s the Doggy 12-Step Program.

I would implement that – but there’s degrees of intensity of implementation. I would implement it very intensely – especially heavy on obedience.

Who’s Calling The Shots?

For example with police dogs, who are selectively extremely aggressive, the way you manage that is through extremely tight, heavy, top-down, hierarchical domination and obedience training. It’s hardcore obedience training, to make sure the dog never makes decisions on its own.

And I think you and I both know a dog that was trained like that – professionally protection trained.

Some years ago, when I was talking to the trainer of that dog, he was saying that people think that a professionally-trained protection German Shepherd is going to have this intuitive sixth sense about the bad guys and the good guys, and make Lassie-like decisions about who to protect when. And they don’t.

Basically, those dogs are severely punished for making even the slightest attempt to make decisions on their own, because they’re not trustworthy. And by severely punished I mean sharp collar corrections, in the context of protection training.

But the point is, they never make decisions on their own. They’re trained to constantly look to their owners for guidance.

And that’s what one would have to do with a dog like that – you have to create a context where the dog absolutely looks to the owner at all times for decision-making, especially around the child.

And that involves a lot of that stuff from the rank-management, and a dominant self-assertion. And dominant doesn’t necessarily mean heavy-handed or aggressive, but it means not joking – serious.

And that’s the only way to deal with it.

Plus, on top of that, they should assume that if the baby’s around, the dog needs to probably be on the leash until we really can trust him in that situation. And that kind of rewiring, that can take some time – and one should work with a good trainer.

Can I Take This On?

Morgan: Yes, so that was my first question about this, Mike. You were giving the example of the police dogs, and that’s a good example because it’s showing the spectrum.

These dogs can’t be trusted – they have to look to the owner for every cue. And so, the trainers who are working with these dogs, they’re trained, they know how to work with dogs in this way. Is what you’re talking about realistic?

To expect someone like myself, who grew up with dogs and has good relationships with them, but doesn’t have any professional training experience – is it realistic to expect that I could take my dog to that place?

Mike: Definitely, absolutely. It’s not that hard.

Morgan: OK, give me some examples.

Mike: Well, it’s not that hard. Most people – most of my clients, and just most people – have this incredibly difficult time just being consistent with their dogs, and appropriately assertive. Most people are just wishy-washy.

The reason somebody like me, or any other good trainer, can take somebody’s dog for two or three weeks and turn them into a fantastically-trained dog isn’t because we have any magic – it’s because we’re consistent.

We know what we’re doing, yes, but in terms of the obedience training, a lot of that stuff is mechanical, you know? So you ask the dog to go down, and if he doesn’t do it, here’s what you do.

But the bigger part of it is to demand it every time, and to be consistent, and to leave no question about one’s authority, basically. It’s more a question of appropriate self-assertion.

And by “appropriate” I mean that we’re not talking about just yelling and screaming, and smacking the dog with newspapers – people who get angry and try to yell and scream their way into a submissive dog, to compensate for what they haven’t done by actually training the dog.

By appropriately assertive, I don’t mean abusive or haphazard. I mean taking time to train the dog, showing them what the rules are, enforcing them.

Enforcing the rules, reinforcing behaviors, all that stuff. And just making it very clear to the dog that we mean what we say, and we say what we mean. Anybody can do that if they want to.

What I constantly find is that people are so unbelievably ambivalent about self-assertion, appropriate self-assertion.

Morgan: Yes, that makes sense. So it’s basically training for both the dogs and the owners.

Mike: Definitely, yes.

Morgan: So one: a fundamental commitment on the part of the owner to establish this rank management system. And then number two, implicit in what I just said: you probably have to actually have a system that both the owner and the dog can follow to, as you said, establish that and then reinforce it. That makes sense.

Mike: Yes, that’s really it. And then also being very careful. Once the dog has shown a tendency or an inclination to bite, we have to presume that that’s potentially there all the time.

I’m kind of saying two things: on the one hand, you can train it out of a dog. On the other hand, once they’ve shown that kind of aggression, I wouldn’t ever totally trust the dog in that situation, like in the case history I just shared, alone with the baby with somebody else in the room.

And of course, I would never trust the dog alone with the baby, period – obviously, for reasons we’ve covered many times.

So yes, it’s doable. It just means one has to get serious – because that is a serious situation.

How Will I Know?

Morgan: Yes, it sounds like it. Alright, so another related question is: what about before your baby shows up?

Are there signs? What should we be looking for? The Doberman example, again, gives you a more extreme version of worst-case scenarios.

But what should people be looking for? Are the signs obvious, or are they going to be subtle?

Mike: It depends. Maybe a little bit of both, to be honest. If you’ve got a very weak-willed owner and a very strong, assertive dog, you can see that coming.

That manifests itself in all kinds of ways: the owner lets the dog constantly drag her down the street, blow her off on obedience commands, the dog is constantly making demands (in subtle and not so subtle ways) and the owner complies.

The owner is always responding to the dog, rather than setting directions.

Those are some telltale, problematic signs – but there’s nothing that can help you really foretell. You see the same kind of behavior in dogs who you wouldn’t expect it from.

But the best thing you can do is to be proactive in advance, by following all the stuff we’ve been talking about for months, and months, and months, now.

The Doggy 12-Step Program, preparing, making sure your dog is trained, making sure you play a leadership role, and all that stuff.

The Old Purely Positive Debate

One of the things that is problematic for people (and I know we’re going to have another podcast about this) is that there’s a lot of conflicting information.

Because the purely positive camp will tell people that the whole notion of being a pack leader, or however you want to frame that, the whole notion of hierarchies in our relationships with our dogs – based on pack theory – they tell people that’s all wrong.

They say that dogs aren’t really pack animals like that, they don’t really have hierarchical power structures like that, etcetera, etcetera. So, there’s an awful lot of misinformation out about that.

And of course, people get that information, and they get the opposite information, and it’s very confusing. It often leaves people kind of numb.

Morgan: Yes, that’s an issue. Well alright, I think we kind of hit it, here.

The two main takeaways that you’re highlighting are: one, it has to do with the ambivalence of the owners, in terms of basic assertiveness; and number two, just being consistent.

Those are the two big takeaways that I got from what you’re saying.

Is Your Dog Responsible To You or For You?

Mike: Yes – I’ll also add one little soundbite. There’s a saying that I always like, which is: there’s a big difference between a dog who feels responsible to you, and a dog that feels responsible for you.

And it’s related. This has to do more with inappropriate protection of owners – and by extension of babies. But a dog that feels responsible to you will look to you for direction whenever it’s faced with a choice.

A dog that feels responsible for you will assume that you can’t take responsibility for yourself, and it has to step in. That’s the difference between leadership and not.

There’s a difference between a dog which feels responsible to you, and a dog which feels responsible for you. And we want our dogs to feel responsible to us.

Morgan: Cool – alright, everybody. So if you want to take any of what we’ve talked about further – if you’ve noticed these signs in your own dog – what do you recommend for people, Mike? What would be the next steps?

Mike: If you’ve got the dog and it’s already protecting the kid inappropriately, hire somebody who knows what they’re doing.

Get my book, get familiar with all that stuff – but I think at that point, you probably need to get some professional help.

And then of course, that raises the issue of what to look for in a trainer – and I would say somebody who’s familiar with a lot of the principles that we’ve been talking about, and who’s sort of a middle-ground trainer.

I would never recommend yank-and-jerk trainers anyhow – people who say the solution to every problem is a yank on a choke chain. Avoid those kind of people.

At the same time, avoid the people who say it’s always clickers and treats, and positive reinforcement, and don’t use compulsion.

You want to find someone who’s familiar with the whole range of training methods, and is flexible in applying them, without being dogmatic – no pun intended.

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